10 Fierce Facts About Dire Wolves

Think dire wolves are a hundred percent fictional? You know nothing, Jon Snow. George R.R. Martin may have an epic imagination, but he didn’t completely make up these Game of Thrones creatures. The powerful canines that we now call “dire wolves” (Canis dirus) did, in fact, patrol North America during Earth’s last ice age. And though they would have been dwarfed by their counterparts in Westeros, the prehistoric predators were still formidable enough to scare the crud out of any Lannister. 

1. They Were More Muscular than Today’s Grey Wolves ...

As the cliché goes, dire wolves weren’t fat—just big-boned. Despite being about the same length as the gray wolf, C. dirus exceeded its modern cousin (Canis lupus) in weight by roughly 25 percent, which means members of the extinct species weighed somewhere between 125 and 175 pounds. Dire wolf bones were broader overall and connected to large, enviable muscles. On the downside, the stocky C. dirus probably wasn't super-speedy, as evidenced by its proportionately shorter legs.

2. … And Their Bites Were More Powerful, Too.

Paleontologist François Therrien calculated that dire wolves could chomp down with 129 percent of the force available to their 21st-century cousins. Yet, in his view, the jaws of another long-extinct carnivore would have made both of them look relatively toothless. Therrien estimates that even the most forceful dire wolf bite was only 69 percent as strong as those inflicted by the American lion (Panthera atrox), which disappeared 11,000 years ago.

3. Dire Wolves Had a Taste for Horses.

These hoofed mammals formed the bulk of a dire wolf’s diet, as revealed by tooth analyses. But bison, mastodons, ancient camels, and giant ground sloths were also available, if the wolves felt like shaking things up a bit.

4. SoCal’s La Brea Tar Pits are a Dire Wolf Gold Mine.

Pyry Matikainen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Forget Winterfell: If you want to see some dire wolves, head to southern California. An awesome display case inside the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits houses nearly 400 Canis dirus skulls. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—so far, the pits themselves have yielded more 200,000 individual dire wolf specimens. How did so many end up dying in the same place? Skip ahead to our next item.

5. Dire Wolves Coexisted with Saber-Toothed Cats.

Few prehistoric creatures are more iconic than the magnificent beast known scientifically as Smilodon fatalis. (Just so we're clear, those huge felines were not actually tigers.) After dire wolves, saber-toothed cats are the second most commonly-found mammal at the La Brea tar pits, where thousands of their bones have been discovered. In total, around 90 percent of La Brea’s mammalian fossils belonged to carnivores of some kind. That’s because, for several millennia, these pits functioned as a predator trap.

The process was fairly straightforward: When an herbivore would get stuck in the tar, hungry meat-eaters would come running, only to suffer an identical fate. As the corpses piled up, more and more carnivores were lured over, resulting in a local fossil record that disproportionately represents their population.

6. By Canine Standards, Dire Wolves Weren’t Especially Bright.

Dire wolves may have been stronger, but, by virtue of having bigger brain cases, grey wolves are likely smarter.

7. The Species Roamed from Canada to Bolivia.

Before they vanished 10,000 years ago, C. dirus must have been a common sight in the Western hemisphere.

8. Some Scientists Think They Originally Evolved in South America.

There’s been some debate as to which continent first gave rise to the dire wolf. While most paleontologists think the creature evolved on North American soil and spread southward, the opposite scenario is also possible. But because remains are much more common above the equator, and fossils from a probable ancestor named Canis armbusteri are found exclusively within U.S. borders, the first theory is far more popular.

9. Specimens from 12,000 Years Ago Broke Fewer Teeth than Those from 15,000 Years Ago.

When competition dries up, the pickings get better. It’s been suggested that dire wolves had to contend with more rival predators 15,000 years ago than they did later on. This forced them to scavenge carcasses that had already been stripped of the good stuff whenever other hunters drove off their live prey. Because bone-gnawing after meals can really take a toll on one’s teeth, C. dirus back then suffered from widespread dental woes. But theoretically, as their competitors started dying off, the dire wolves were left with more kills, meatier corpses, and healthier chompers.

10. One Organization is Trying to Breed Faux Dire Wolves.

The real thing is long gone, but we may still be able to create some pretty convincing stand-ins. Since 1988, the American Altisan Breeder’s Association has been combining various dog breeds “in order to bring back the look of the large prehistoric Dire Wolf.” The resulting pooches have been described as calm, shaggy, and “distinctly wolfy.” But be warned: one pup will set you back $3000, and there’s a sizable waiting list. On the bright side, you’ll have plenty of time to pick out a name—though we’re calling dibs on “Ghost.”

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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